The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, gave a stark warning last week about the threat to this country from terrorists. Sir Ian, who will deliver the Richard Dimbleby Lecture on Wednesday, spoke apocalyptically: "I have never seen anything like what's happening at the moment. There are people out there in the UK plotting mass atrocity without warning." The force, he said, is "very, very worried and alarmed".
It's fair to assume that the police anywhere, but especially London, would take very seriously anything that might lead them to someone who has threatened to use violence. So let me tell you some stories about individuals who have information about or who have been menaced by people who style themselves Islamic extremists.
My article last month in The Independent about the Government's incitement to religious hatred Bill was tongue in cheek, arguing that if ministers are so keen to protect believers, at the expense of free speech, they should pass similar legislation to protect women from misogyny. The paper received a large number of identical letters and emails in response, protesting about a sentence which criticised the Bible and the Koran.
Nine days after the article appeared, a more sinister email arrived. Ominously describing me as "tinder", the writer made a blatant attempt to scare The Independent out of giving me space and finished with a threat: "You should take your foot of [sic] the gas. This journeys [sic] end is coming for us all." Three months after the terrorist attacks on London, it did not seem sensible to treat it as an idle threat, so I called my local police station.
The officer I spoke to treated the whole thing as a joke. The following day, I visited the police station where the duty officer took it much more seriously, suggesting it would be passed to Special Branch. Two days later, I was called by a detective sergeant. "This email ..." he said, sounding puzzled, "it's not racist, is it?"
I pointed out that the language was inflammatory and the message could be read as a threat to suicide-bomb the newspaper. A day later, the same officer told me by email that the investigation had been dropped because the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) felt that no offence had been committed. Now puzzled myself - at the very least, the "tinder" email was a malicious communication - I challenged the decision. I got nowhere, and I'm still waiting for Sir Ian Blair to acknowledge my letter about the Met's failure to investigate.
I spoke next to someone who has received very specific death threats, Brett Lock of the gay rights organisation OutRage!. In the summer, he and Peter Tatchell received graphic phone calls - "I know where you live. I'm going to chop you up" - from someone who described in detail what can be done to homosexual people under sharia law. A Muslim member of OutRage! got similar calls, accusing him of being an apostate and a traitor.
Lock reported the calls to the police. An investigation started - and stopped. "They said it was an over-the-counter mobile and they couldn't trace it, which we thought was fairly inadequate," he told me. "If they investigated these things properly, people are linked to other people ..."
It's a message that doesn't seem to have got through to the police. A joint Newsnight and File on 4 investigation last month uncovered connections between Mohammed Sidique Khan, the eldest of the 7/7 bombers, and foreign extremists. Far from being a "clean skin", the BBC suggested that Khan had had "extensive" contacts with extremists, including al-Qa'ida supporters. In a web of Islamist connections, journalists were told by a source that Khan had sought meetings with him after the arrest of another extremist, fearful that his own cover had been blown. Khan was accompanied by three men who were not the London bombers, raising the possibility that some of his accomplices are still at large. When the BBC journalists persuaded the source to give his potentially crucial information to the anti-terrorist hotline, he too encountered a brick wall. "No disrespect," he was told, "but these people could have been anybody."
Naturally I wanted to discuss these alarming responses with the police, and to ask why higher priority isn't given to both intelligence-gathering and public protection. But the press bureau of the Metropolitan Police referred me to the Association of Chief Police Officers, who referred me back to the Met's press bureau, while the local police press bureau just quoted the CPS.
At the same time, a chance remark from Brett Lock - that he'd seen my Independent column discussed on Islamic websites - put my own situation in a new context. A quick search of the internet produced startling results, to say the least, including my photograph and an extract from one of my columns in the small-circulation Labour weekly, Tribune, on a site called Islamophobia-watch.com. Then, on the website of the Islamic Human Rights Commission - a conjunction which would be hilarious, if it wasn't so sinister - I discovered that I'm on the shortlist for the title of Islamophobe of the year.
For writing that single sentence about the Koran, I find myself in an almost random grouping that encompasses Nick Cohen of The Observer, John Ware of Panorama, Trevor Phillips of the Commission for Racial Equality, Nick Griffin of the British National Party, and the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, for his alleged "persecution of Muslims in Britain". It really is that mad.
I don't think the people behind the Islamophobe of the year award are followers of Voltaire; what they're doing looks to me like an attempt to frighten critics of Islam into shutting up, if not actually incitement to hatred. The irony is that I am a patron of and for four years chaired the PEN Writers in Prison Committee, have campaigned on behalf of threatened authors and journalists, including Muslims, worldwide and was offered an MBE for services to human rights by the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw.
Maybe the people who threatened me, The Independent and members of OutRage! are cranks, acting alone, but it's also possible that they have sinister connections, like Khan. I know that Sir Ian has his own problems: the annual report last month from Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabulary rated his force "poor" in three out of seven categories, including investigating crime. I'll take his word that we are in a "chilling" situation, but I'd also like some evidence that the police have something more practical to offer than scary rhetoric.Reuse content